The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has been provisionally approved for use in New Zealand, where the government will begin vaccinating frontline healthcare and border workers in the coming months.
Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister, said the approval was a positive step in the country’s fight against Covid-19, of which there have been fewer than 2,000 cases nationally.
In New Zealand the approval of medicines and vaccines falls under Medsafe, which also provides independent advice to the government. Although the assessment of the Pfizer vaccine was fast-tracked in New Zealand, it was not given the pace of an “emergency” medicine as the virus has been largely under control.
“Medsafe’s decision is the culmination of a rigorous assessment process over many months to ensure the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is safe and effective to use here. It is informed by the most up to date medical and scientific data. We can have confidence in their decision,” Ardern said.
“They’ve been in regular contact with medicines regulators around the world where the vaccine is already being rolled out. Allowing some time to study the vaccine roll-out overseas has provided extra assurance before starting our vaccination programme here.”
According to the Ministry of Health, New Zealand has no active community outbreaks or transmission of the disease, despite a scare in January that saw three people catch the virus in a managed isolation hotel.
The director general of health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, said Medsafe worked “over weekends and through the Christmas break” to assess the global clinical data of the Pfizer vaccine in real time and as fast as possible.
Ardern said those most at risk of contracting Covid-19 would receive the vaccine first, with the broader community vaccination rolled out from the middle of the year.
Border workers and the people they live with would be the first to receive the jab, followed by cleaners, security staff and nurses doing health checks in managed isolation facilities, customs and border officials, airline staff and hotel workers.
The Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins has said it could take as long as a year to vaccinate the entire New Zealand population of 5 million people.
The Pfizer vaccine has not yet arrived in the country, but officials are expecting it by the end of March. Amid criticism that New Zealand was being forgotten in the global roll-out of the vaccine, the government has repeatedly said the need in other countries is greater and more urgent.
New Zealand has ordered 15m courses of Covid-19 vaccine from four different providers. It will be free. Some of the vaccines will be sent to countries in the Pacific, and NZ$75m in aid will be included to help Pacific countries vaccinate their vulnerable populations.
The prime minister said it was the government’s policy to purchase multiple types of vaccine as they progressed through the final trial stages, to ensure options were successful.
The government will launch a major public health campaign encouraging Kiwis to get the shot, and Ardern has said the borders will remain closed until the nation is “vaccinated and protected”.
“I have said 2021 is the year of the vaccine,” Ardern said.
“It’s a full-year programme we have only just begun. We’re not in a race to be first, but to ensure safe and timely access to vaccines for all New Zealanders.”